at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
Pencilgrass. I don't understand the name. I've thought about it long and hard. Is it a clever play on words or a reference to something political/social? Maybe it's just one of those names that is just a name with nothing else to it. Maybe the meaning will reveal itself to me at a later date. Maybe someone will read this article and stop me in the street and make me feel like an idiot for missing the obvious connection. Or maybe I'm making a big deal of a small thing.
But it is a big deal. It is a big deal because despite the fact that Pencilgrass meant absolutely nothing to 99.9 percent of the city's population last Saturday morning, a group with that name still hauled their butts all the way down here from Boston to perform.
There were seven of them. I-Path shoes, young t-shirts, and worn, tight-fitting jeans. None of them had shaved in days. They were like a ghetto version of Jamiroquai minus the black guy... add a really skinny guy that reminded me of Paul (the nerdy best friend on "Wonder Years") playing keys. I always liked Paul. I guess that's why I ordered a drink and watched them quietly set up their equipment behind two tables eating dinner and smoking 'shisha.' In the back of my mind I really wanted to know what a ghetto-looking Jamiroquai sounded like.
My tea arrived right around the time they struck their first note. My drink was too hot to drink right away, so I posted up against a wall to survey the land. The place hadn't yet filled with people. The few there to hear music began to gather toward the front of the room. Pencilgrass' first song had an infectious groove. The drums were reminiscent of down-tempo '70s disco. The bass was dubbed out while the guitar and keys swam around in an ambient world to help create the melody.
Although Pencilgrass turned a few heads with their first song, I wasn't all the way impressed. They seemed to be a little cold and not in the zone. Not to mention my initial response was that I wasn't fond of the singer's voice– it was gravely and monotone, which reminded me of what the lead singer of Blur would sound like with throat cancer.
Already building a rack of assumptions in my head after their first song, I took another sip of tea. I nearly burned my tongue off. It was just hot enough that I couldn't get a good gulp. Pencilgrass began their second song. That is when things really started to liven up. I took a seat close to the stage at the front of the room. My positioning in front of the vocal's speaker helped a lot. The lead dude's voice was much less muddy, and I could pick out pieces of his poetry through the whirring synth and punchy horn section. Speaking of horns, the two-piece (trumpet, tenor sax) "section" was quite precise. At times they brought a ska element to the music. On other occasions, they created a sweet eerie harmony underneath the vocals.
It was if the rock-the-house factor of Pencilgrass was inversely proportional to how hot my tea was. As the drink cooled off, Pencilgrass caught fire. Yes, this was the ghetto Jamiroquai. The same house/dance elements fused with reggae and psychedelic soul.
But I'd seen Jamiroquai live, and these guys rocked with much more enthusiasm. Especially Paul on keys, who was a downright beast with the synth modulation and trancelike buildups. Pencilgrass proved to be pretty solid. Better believe I look 'em up next time I'm in Boston.
PHOTO BY DAMANI HARRISON